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On the Individual Nature of Self-Protection

On the Individual Nature of Self-Protection


I decided to create this article to explore a few issues that surfaced in another thread, because I think they’re worthwhile topics of discussion that could benefit from conversation on their own turf.  This article will look at the role of individual risk assessment when considering and planning self-protection training.   This article is aimed at students, not instructors, but perhaps it will benefit both.


Before I begin, let me clarify that I am not posting this to suggest that it is the final answer or the best approach.  I am sharing this only because I think my questions and experiences may be relevant to others.

I’m not an expert, but I’m also not a beginner.  This is an article about my own experiences (kind of like a user review, if you will).  If you disagree, that’s fine . . . it’s expected, actually, because the whole point of this endeavor is to show that self-protection training is an individualized pursuit. 

Even if I'm wrong, perhaps it will be helpful to think about why I am wrong.

(Also, sometimes the text on these articles can be hard to read.  If you have that problem, you can zoom in the view on your browser.)

Self-Protection as an Individual Pursuit

The key point I want to make in this post is that students of self-protection always have to start with the risks, threats, opportunities, and other aspects of their own life.  Importantly, this is not something we can expect self-protection teachers to do for us!  The vast majority of us will not have access to 1-on-1 personal security coaching and training from a world-class expert.  It will almost always fall on us to take the lessons we have learned and apply them to our own situation.  Doing that effectively requires a very careful analysis of the risks facing us, the resources we have available, the preparations we are willing to undertake and commit to, and the capacity we have for actual improvement.


To illustrate this point, I probably need to give you some examples.  I’m going to use examples from my own life.  When I first started training in the martial arts, it was because I was getting bullied by older kids at school.  These kids were several years older than me and had a huge size advantage.  I expect a lot of people went through similar problems when they were growing up.  I lived in a small town, so it wasn’t a question of whether I could avoid the bullies.  I couldn’t.  We rode the same bus, we passed each other in the hallways, we lived close to each other.  I won’t bore you with the details—the point is that this younger kid needed self-protection training, but of a very particular kind.  The problem was that the martial art that I was studying (combined with all of the other things I was doing) was completely ineffective for this purpose.  What I needed was a very specific toolkit to keep me from getting tormented by these older kids:  a toolkit to help me escape from them, or if escape wasn’t possible, to at least reduce the risk of injury.  This toolkit needed to take into account the fact that I was small, the fact that I was sometimes stuck on a bus ride with these bullies, the fact that the bullies would lie to teachers and play the victim, the fact that the bullies absolutely would try to get revenge if I “one-upped” them, and the fact that the bullies themselves were kids, etc. 

Fast forward several years.  I continue martial arts training.  My training includes techniques like neck cranks, chokes, eye strikes, groin strikes, etc.  I live in a rural area and barely get out except to go to school or to training.  I have a self-protection toolkit, but it’s a liability – I don’t have the maturity to really understand the impact of using some of these techniques on another person, and I don't do enough live training to actually have combative skill.  Nevertheless, as a side effect of studying martial arts, I develop a completely unjustified confidence in my own abilities.  Because of this confidence, I don’t have problems with bullies at this phase of my life.

Fast forward several years.  I have a job that brings me in touch with a lot of drunk college students.  For a time, I’m a bartender, and I also do a very short (and actually comical) stint working the door.  I get years of experience managing drunk people.  I develop good awareness skills for the specific environment of dealing with drunk people in bars.  I use de-escalation skills multiple times per month.  But these are specific de-escalation skills that are used for dealing with drunk people.  My job is to keep myself safe but also to try to keep some of them safe.  I’m not typically dealing with hardened felons or professional criminals.  Throughout my time in this environment, I never use striking or groundfighting skills.  Despite the fact that I’m training regularly in submission grappling, I never once take someone to the ground intentionally in a live situation, and I never once try to submit someone in a live situation.

Fast forward to today.  I travel all the time for work.  I spend a lot of time in airports and different cities.  I have a very unpredictable schedule and I often find myself trying to navigate unfamilliar areas on short notice with tight deadlines, which doesn’t leave much time for preparation.  My self-protection skills now have to take into account that I am spending a lot of time in new environments.  I need to think about the fact that I may have a self-protection situation on an airplane (for example, with a drunk passenger).  I need to learn about safety in taxis.  Sometimes the environment itself is a major threat (e.g., heat safety in Arizona in July, etc.).  I have to learn about managing disruptive/dangerous behavior in the workplace, and counsel people on how to address it.

Civilian Self-Protection

The point I am making is that all of these concerns technically fall under the umbrella of “civilian self-protection.”  But they are all different.  When I was a kid dealing with the bullies, I needed to spend 95% of my time building a skill set that would keep me safe from them.  Escape meant getting and staying within eyesight of a teacher.  When I was living in a rural area, escape was a much different formula (and police response time was over 45 minutes).  When I was bartending, escape meant running across the street to the police station.  When I’m traveling in a new city, escape is complicated (and can’t be summed up in a sentence), but the general plan involves running, hard, for several blocks and then getting in the first taxi I see.  If I run out of breath before I find a taxi, it means finding the best place I can to hide and call for an Uber. 

If I’m traveling with my girlfriend, escape is rarely an option, because she usually wears shoes that keep her from running (and I can’t convince her otherwise).  If she’s with me, I can’t run away.  I have to try to eliminate or at least delay the threat in front of me.  

So, all of these are different.  Avoidance, awareness, escape . . . all completely different.  And that’s just for me.  If I were a police officer, or doorman, or prison guard, the answers would all be different. 

Here in America, the legalities are different too.  Every time I go to a new state, I have to think about its laws (both for work and for self-protection).  In one state, I can carry a pistol concealed so long as I don’t go in certain buildings.  In another state, I could instantly violate criminal law if I carry that same pistol improperly.  And there’s no way I can rely on a self-protection expert to explain all of this to me.  I have an obligation to take this on myself and do the best I can.  And it all falls under the umbrella term of “civilian self-protection.”

This also means that I need to think carefully about what I’m preparing for.  At home, firearms are my primary means of self-protection.  This means I have to practice getting to them.  I have to spend time thinking about which shots are safe to take (in terms of the bullet passing through the wall) and which shots are not safe to take.  It means figuring out where the best place to position myself would be if I realize someone's in the house (and I hvae time to prepare).  It means doing research on the time of day when home invasions are most common.  It means studying material from firearms experts and taking classes when I can afford them.  It means an obsessive focus on firearms safety.  It means using NextDoor to keep an eye on crime in this part of the city.  And so on.

Striking a Balance

Simultaneously, I have to strike a balance.  While it would be great to spend multiple sessions per week training purely for self-protection (with an emphasis on multiple enemies and weapons awareness, etc.), using scenario-based training and sometimes force-on-force training, I have to acknowledge that I’m not going to do that.  As best I can tell, there are no schools in the region that even offer that kind of training at a reasonable price.  I could go to the trouble of founding my own martial arts club solely for this purpose, but then I wouldn’t have access to the depth of knowledge available at my current schools.  So I have to take my existing resources, match them to the risks, and supplement where possible.

I don’t think I’m out of the ordinary in encountering these obstacles.  I expect that many of us have similar challenges matching our self-protection training and resources to our individual lifestyles, our families, etc..  I think we all instinctively know this, but it’s my belief that it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. 

Why does it matter?  Well, the key is understanding what a reasonable portrait of self-protection looks like for the individual.  Now that I’m spending a lot of time traveling, I need to start shifting to a deeper understanding of self-protection for those environments (which I’ve been doing).  I have to think about airport security.  I need to spend time thinking about the shoes I’m wearing when I’m traveling, in case something does go wrong (as it has in the past) and I have to get away.  I have to think about cybersecurity and wi-fi networks, because I have to comply with certain laws relating to handling confidential files.  And so on.

But if I were living in a rural area in America, I’d probably want to focus almost all of my self-protection training on the carry and use of firearms (and all of the attached soft skills), with a much lower emphasis on unarmed combat, and zero worries about air travel. 

The bottom line is that self-protection is different for each of us, and that has major implications for how we structure our training.  Are we going to devote 60% of our in-class training time to developing skills that work against multiple enemies who are trying to cause serious bodily injury to us?  Perhaps, but I would argue that this isn’t going to apply to everyone.  What if we are talking about a small-statured adult woman who is trying to protect herself from an abusive stalker?  Perhaps we start her off with firearms training and work from there, because that’s going to be more effective short-term than trying to develop unarmed combat skills that will work reliably under pressure.  (Trying to teach her to fight off multiple enemies while unarmed comes much, much later on the curriculum (if ever)).  Do we spend 80% of class time roleplaying angry pre-fight rituals?  That might be good for some people, but it always depends on who is taking the class and why.

What if we are talking to an adult woman who has an abusive teenage son?  The de-escalation training she’s going to receive is not the same as the de-escalation skills I needed as a bartender handling drunks.  What if we’re talking about a nurse working with dementia patients who get violent later in the day?  Again, his or her de-escalation training is different, and more importantly, this person will need an in-depth understanding of all applicable regulations that govern work in that setting.

I fully understand that it is difficult/impossible to cover these different areas in a group class.  There is a need for a structured curriculum.  But these different scenarios lead to completely different focuses in training.  Finger locks, pepper spray, choke holds, groundfighting, preemptive striking, knife defense . . . the answers and the training all depend on the situation.  And we can’t answer them by focusing solely on: “Well, would this work or not work against X?” with X alternately standing for multiple enemies, hardened criminals, large athletic men, people with knives, trained opponents, and so on.  That question does not capture the variety and the need to look at the probability of a desirable outcome.  It doesn't indicate that self-protection is an individualized pursuit.


In a nutshell:  an individual should begin their self-protection training with a thorough risk assessment that honestly captures the issues relevant to their own life.  This means things like their age, injuries, family, friends, social networks, work, location, income, mental health . . . the whole picture.  Start from the ground up.  Self-protection becomes a process of (a) the individual putting in the work to learn from experts but then (b) applying it thoughtfully and critically to their own life and their own resources. 

Let me emphasize that this isn’t meant to be an indictment of any particular person or approach.  I don’t know how most of you structure or approach your self-protection classes.  Some of you probably have already found ways to address this problem in your day-to-day teaching, and if so, I'd be interested in hearing more about it.

Again, this is the result of me applying the lessons I have learned during my own training to the experiences and problems I’ve had in my own life.  I’m open to constructive criticism, but I do ask that we focus on the core point:  the individual nature of self-protection training.  (For example, maybe you disagree strongly with the idea of firearm ownership.  That's fine, but it's probably a discussion best saved for another place.)

Thanks for reading and for your time.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Good article, and very interesting points.

This brings up some things I've been thinking about since lockdown, and maybe a discussion of them would address some of what you are talking about.

First, I think we have to acknowledge that there is "hard limit" on what anyone can teach to others on this subject, even assuming that a teacher is as competent as they could be, which I certainly don't feel I am anywhere near. It's a journey and all that. Even if we assume that we are as competent as can be in this area, some of your examples are simply not something one person can fully educate another on.

The example of the mother with the abusive son requires some serious expertise, straddling the worlds of self-protection, mental health, and the places where they overlap. The most a teacher of self protection can do in those instances is to offer such a person whatever resources they are aware of, and then encourage them to make their own study. There are people who write on de-escalation in this very area, but a teacher of self defense cannot be expected to know what an expert in this particular area can.

Which brings me to the main point, which is that yes, you are right.

-All- of this stuff is an individual study, we get goether to test, train, bang eachother around and exhange ideas, but anyone who is a "lifer" in martial arts knows that sometimes it is a lonely road with lots of changing faces. The best we can do is 1) know you own strengths and limitations well enough to transmit a bit of the strengths and a minimum of the limtations to others and 2) encourage others to pursue martial arts and self defense with full awareness of their own strengths and limitations. A big part of competent teaching of this subject in today's world is covered simply by acknowledging that it is it's own study, and differs from other directions - i.e. martial arts and fighting. We just got done with pages of debate over that, and we have some experience, imagine how confusing this can be to a brand new person.

When I teach self defense in my class, I admit there is much that I don't know, and I usually point people to resources who have spoken to me the most, while keeping in mind that my students are not me. They have their own motivations, and I've had some that don't even care that much about the self defense aspect. It's a challenge to have something for everyone.

I try to cover what is relevant to the individuals in the class, but I have a wide demographic range and there is only so much I can do, limited as I am by own experiences and knowledge. I try to be as evidence-based as I can, be aware of assumptions and biases, and encourage people to make their own decisions. This stuff is a journey, and while we should always seek what is verifably true (particularly as regards self defense), we all can see only a part of things, and the Parable of the Elephant is a useful one here.

Simply admitting that we don't alwways know about what we can't see is an honest way to conduct the journey, at least.

This is also an easier question for someone like me, because I have a small group of students and don't claim to do anything but teach Goju Ryu. I can do that competently, and to me that involves -a portion- covering self defense, but only a portion, there is lots of other stuff, and I make clear that while I care about the self-defense aspect, I am by no means an expert. I have experienced non-consensual and consensual violence, and to a degree grew up in close proximity to forms of both. That's not an official qualification, but I feel it counts in my favor, at least a little, in terms of ability to be objective. It's one thing to read about drug crime, another to grow in a nieghborhood where the DEA raids your neighbor. It doesn't make me an expert, but it does give me (I think) a  somewhat more refined "bullshit detector". To be clear, I'm not some operator, but I've seen enough stuff firsthand growing up to not get led astray where I otherwise would have. That said, personal experiences are just that, they both give insight *and* create unavoidable blinders and biases as we contextualize them, and I am sure I am blind as a bat about certain things.

For this reason acknowledged experts in the field should be listened to, and I usually let their opinions override my own. Youtube is a gold mine for sharing these kinds of resources with students, as well as being a place where people can possibly get really stuck on confusing and competing narratives.

Anyway, on the individual stuff:

Knowing oneself and knowing one's students (in the sense of tailoring your class to what they need/want without sacrificing your own standards) is challenging of and within itself, and that goes for any aspect of training. Self defense is no exception, but perhaps one area where it's even more important to know what we know, and at least be aware when there is a lot we may not know.

deltabluesman's picture

Thanks Zach, I appreciate the read-through and the great feedback.  I take your point about the limitations we have in this, and about how there's only so much that one person can pass on to another in these areas.  For what it's worth, I wrote the post not so much to critique a particular way of structuring a curriculum or teaching a class, but just to emphasize the role of the student in all of this.  As I see it, all a self-protection teacher can do is build a structured curriculum that offers a wide range of principles and tools that will push students in the right direction.  As you point out, so long as the teaching is based on evidence, works to incorporate expert input, and is consistent with the claims and marketing being made, it's a valuable and useful product.  But then it eventually falls on the student to actually walk the path, apply the principles, get more information, develop the skills, and focus on the problems they face.

In other words, it's a shift in perspective.  There's a perspective of looking from the top-down (how should a teacher structure a self-protection class?  what topics are covered?  what drills are included?), but it's just as important for the student to look from the bottom up (what do I need, where can I get it, what's available, what can I afford?) etc.  And for me, it was only after deliberately taking both perspectives that I was able to set priorities for my own life.

And of course, it's my belief that this is largely consistent with the overall framework of the martial map (giving time for things like enjoyment, traditional art, sport, and so on).

(Lastly, I should make a general note that when I used the term "user review," I wasn't referring specifically to this forum or website, but instead just to the collection of experiences I've had as a whole (across different teachers/schools/resources/etc.)).

Thanks again for the read-through + feedback.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

deltabluesman wrote:

 I wrote the post not so much to critique a particular way of structuring a curriculum or teaching a class, but just to emphasize the role of the student in all of this.  As I see it, all a self-protection teacher can do is build a structured curriculum that offers a wide range of principles and tools that will push students in the right direction. 

That's exactly what a teacher does, in anything I think, not just martial arts. Most students come to martial arts and self defense in particular with either no knowledge, or knowledge and pre existing biases from mass media . In this situation the early training is just situated to helping them contextualize what they are learning and to learn critical thinking and critical training skills. once that's done, the journey becomes more and more independent. By the end, a student isn't even a student anymore, but essentially a "junior peer" who is largely responsible for their own learning. At that point a teacher just facilitates the environment and keeps things fresh.           

Here's a little two minute bit from Rory Miller that I found chock full (especially given it's short length) of good advice for teaching Karate:                                                                                                     

deltabluesman's picture

Yes, I think that is an excellent video, thank you for that.  I didn't realize that he had a Youtube channel.  I will keep an eye on it for other videos.